Written by Jon L. Breen
The multitalented and prolific Simon Brett received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 Malice Domestic Convention. An acknowledged master of the modern whodunit, he is also the current president of the prestigious Detection Club in the UK.
Photo: Christian Doyle
Among the avenues, side streets, and dark alleys in the crime fiction community, where is Main Street? If it’s the pure whodunit, centered on a mysterious crime (usually murder) with a variety of possible suspects and solved by a detective (amateur or professional, brilliant or just persistent), a form that allows for any amount of lively prose, intriguing characters, specialized background, social observation, humor, and at least occasionally fair-play clues, Simon Brett is one of the best merchants currently doing business there.
Born in Surrey in 1945, Brett was educated at Dulwich College and Oxford, where he was heavily involved in student theatrics, becoming President of the Oxford University Dramatic Society and writing, directing, and appearing in revues in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, an experience that led to a job as a writer and producer at BBC Radio. There he met his future wife, Lucy, worked on a wide variety of programs—music, satire, panel games, drama, and shepherded the radio pilot of Douglas Adams’ A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Adapting Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey stories piqued his ambition to write detective fiction. A shorter stint at London Weekend Television proved less satisfying. He confesses on his website, “I spent most of the two years I was at London Weekend poring over a calculator, trying to work out whether I could afford to write full time.” He made the break in 1979 and in 1981 moved with his wife and three small children from suburban London to a West Sussex village and moved into “one of those organic houses; the earliest parts date from 1783 and since then it’s been added to by various owners (including the writer John Cowper Powys—and us).” He and Lucy still reside there with three cats named Geoffrey, Castor, and Pollux. British readers won’t be surprised, but Americans might, at Brett’s prolific output apart from adult crime fiction: scripts for stage, radio, and television; volumes of humor (How to Be a Little Sod was a bestseller in Britain); children’s mysteries; and several anthologies in the “Faber Book of” series.
CHARLES PARIS, ENTER STAGE LEFT
Although he has written standalone crime novels, Brett is best known for four series centered on amateur sleuths. First came journeyman actor Charles Paris, featured in 16 novels from Cast, in Order of Disappearance (1976) to Dead Room Farce (1998), and one short story, “The Haunted Actress,” from the collection Tickled to Death (1985; UK title A Bag of Tricks). Unhappily separated from his wife, Paris is a heavy drinker but not (by his own definition) an alcoholic. Though presumably a decent actor to get as much stage and TV work as he does, he has apparently collected more wittily denigrating reviews than anyone in theatrical annals. Not a Great Detective but a determined one, Charles routinely accuses or at least suspects the wrong person before finding the truth. Though essentially humorous and satirical, the saga takes on a slightly darker mood as the problem drinking becomes more obvious.
Paris enters virtually every corner of British acting: a one-man show at the Edinburgh Festival in So Much Blood (1977), a West End musical in Star Trap (1978), BBC radio drama in The Dead Side of the Mike (1980), a TV sitcom in Situation Tragedy (1982), a TV detective show in A Series of Murders (1989), reality-based TV crime in A Reconstructed Corpse (1994), and an industrial video in Corporate Bodies (1992). In Dead Room Farce, he reads for audiobooks, first of an insipid romance, then of a thesaurus.
Purely as a theatrical novel, Sicken and So Die (1997) may be the best in the series, one of the great novels about putting on a play. Charles’ performance of a dream role, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, is threatened by a trendy director who believes in reimagining the classics. One hilarious example of this fashion is a Richard III production in which Richard was “handsome and upright, while all the other characters had been played with various disabilities.” Among Brett’s best puzzle plots is Not Dead, Only Resting (1984), in which Charles never gets an acting job but is employed redecorating a trendy restaurant.
MRS. PARGETER, MARRIED TO CRIME
Charles Paris fans may have unfairly resented Brett’s attention to his second series sleuth. Melita Pargeter, the late-60s widow of an accomplished professional criminal whose success left her wealthy and whose underworld contacts aid her amateur sleuthing, appears in six books from A Nice Class of Corpse (1987) to Mrs. Pargeter’s Point of Honour (1999). A passage in Mrs. Pargeter’s Package (1991) illustrates the lady’s willful ignorance of her late husband’s criminal career when shady travel agent Hamish Ramon Enriques (known as H.R.H.) asks her if she remembers a vacation to Crete he once arranged for the Pargeters.
“Certainly. We had a wonderful time. I didn’t know you arranged that.”…
“It was my privilege. Quite tricky at the time, actually. They were looking out for him at the airports.”
“‘Really?” It did explain something, though. “Is that why he went on the plane dressed as a bishop?”
H.R.H.’s unconventional travel business provides some of Brett’s funniest set-pieces when Mrs. Pargeter overhears his employees on the phone dealing with clients.
The Pargeter series seems determined to recycle some of the most time-honored situations and plot elements in detective fiction. See for example the method of smoking out the killer in Mrs., Presumed Dead (1989), set in an upscale housing development. As for Mrs. Pargeter, while she is certainly entertaining, she is less believable or appealing than Charles Paris or the protagonists of Brett’s next series.
FETHERING, A COZY COMMUNITY
The Body on the Beach (2000) introduces the odd-couple sleuthing team of Carole Seddon, staid and proper, prematurely retired home office functionary, and her free-spirited alternative-healer friend Jude Nichols, inhabitants of the seaside community of Fethering. Carole’s uneasy relations with her ex-husband and son provide the soap-opera subplots required by the cozy market, and Jude’s air of mystery allows for any number of surprises about her colorful past. Like the Paris saga, the Fethering series began in a fairly comic mode—we learn in the first entry that a neighboring community is called Tarring—and grew more serious in later books.
My pick for best of the series is Murder in the Museum (2003), set at a stately home once occupied by a semi-famous World War I poet. The recreation of documents from that period gives the novel an extra resonance, and the prickly family relationships and satire of academic scholarship are beautifully done. Another good one is The Stabbing in the Stables (2006), a twisty and fairly clued whodunit that includes a visit to a small racecourse jump meeting and Jude’s effort to use her healing powers on a horse. The series’ 12th entry, Bones Under the Beach Hut (2011), in which Carole does most of the sleuthing with Jude relatively subdued and often offstage, is one of the lesser Fethering books, but all are worth reading.
BLOTTO & TWINKS
Only in his newest series does Brett essay a flat-out comic novel. The Right Honourable Devereux Lyminster, familiarly known as Blotto, is a cross between Bertie Wooster and Bulldog Drummond though much stupider than either. His sister Twinks, the beautiful and profoundly accomplished Lady Honoria Lyminster, plays Holmes to Blotto’s sub-Captain-Hastings-caliber Watson. Their slang-filled dialogue suggests a Roaring Twenties British equivalent of Robert Leslie Bellem’s hardboiled pulp narratives. All three of their adventures to date begin as parodies of Golden Age detection, making James Anderson’s Inspector Wilkins novels look like gritty police procedurals, then make a midway course correction to become zany international thrillers.
In Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter (Felony & Mayhem, 2011, $14.95), murder strikes during a visit to Tawcester (pronounced Taster) Towers by the deposed King Sigismund of Mitteleuropia and his retinue. Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess (Felony & Mayhem, 2012, $14.95) concerns the country-house-party murder of an upper-crust woman whose unattractive daughter envisions herself as the bride of Blotto. Troubadour Bligh, a “know-it-all polymathic amateur sleuth” of the sort common to such occasions, climaxes his gathering of the suspects by pointing his finger at the Lyminster family chauffeur. Twinks has deduced the real culprit, and she and Blotto spend the rest of the book trying to clear their servant while battling the sinister League of the Crimson Hand, led by the mysterious Crimson Thumb. In Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera (not yet in US book form but available as an ebook), the sleuthing siblings travel to France to retrieve two stolen portraits. The wild ending in a master criminal’s lair is like something out of a James Bond spoof. Much punning fun is had with the French language and personalities of Paris in the '20s, including a couple of rival American novelists based on Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
Be warned that Blotto and Twinks are best taken in small doses. Reading a whole novel at a stretch is like overeating a rich dessert. It’s easy to imagine their adventures as a relentlessly silly British sitcom along the lines of ‘Allo ‘Allo, and that may be how broadcasting veteran Brett visualized them.
Two of Simon Brett’s series have the legs to last indefinitely, two others less apparent durability, but everything he writes offers interesting characters, engaging prose, acute social observations, and unfailing humor. Even the least of his books rewards the reader.
NOTE: Dates given are for first US publication. Publication in the UK is usually a year or two earlier.
A SELECTED SIMON BRETT READING LIST
Cast, in Order of Disappearance (1975)
So Much Blood (1976)
Star Trap (1977)
An Amateur Corpse (1978)
A Comedian Dies (1979)
The Dead Side of the Mike (1980)
Situation Tragedy (1981)
Murder Unprompted (1982)
Murder in the Title (1983)
Not Dead, Only Resting (1984)
Dead Giveaway (1985)
What Bloody Man Is That? (1987)
A Series of Murders (1989)
Corporate Bodies (1991)
A Reconstructed Corpse (1993)
Sicken and So Die (1995)
Dead Room Farce (1997)
A Nice Class of Corpse (1986)
Mrs., Presumed Dead (1988)
Mrs. Pargeter's Package (1990)
Mrs. Pargeter's Pound of Flesh (1992)
Mrs. Pargeter's Plot (1996)
Mrs. Pargeter's Point of Honour (1998)
The Body on the Beach (2000)
Death on the Downs (2001)
The Torso in the Town (2002)
Murder in the Museum (2003)
The Hanging in the Hotel (2004)
The Witness at the Wedding (2005)
The Stabbing in the Stables (2006)
Death Under the Dryer (2007)
Blood at the Bookies (2008)
The Poisoning at the Pub (2009)
The Shooting in the Shop (2010)
Bones Under the Beach Hut (2011)
Guns in the Gallery (2011)
BLOTTO & TWINKS
Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter (2009)
Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess (2010)
Blotto, Twinks and the Rodents of the Riviera (2011)
STANDALONE CRIME NOVELS
A Shock to the System (1984)
Dead Romantic (1985)
The Christmas Crimes at Puzzel Manor (1991)
Singled Out (1995)
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
A Box of Tricks (1985)
Tickled to Death: And Other Stories Crime Writers and Other Animals (1985)
A Crime in Rhyme: and Other Mysterious Fragments (2000)
Murder in Play (1994)
Mr. Quigley's Revenge (1995)
A Bad Dream (2005)
A Small Family Murder (2008)
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #123.